Scaling Culture 3: *How* To Keep It From Going Wrong

For a while I’ve attempted to fight the misconception that culture is simply pizza and ping pong. Ancillary benefits like these are not the whole picture, but they do play a role. In a framework I co-authored outlining the components of company culture I found where perks become useful, and it is exactly how companies can overcome relationship decay.

Now that we know that relationships begin to weaken somewhere between 50 and 150 people, how should leaders of growth organizations keep colleagues more tightly connected through bouts of early growth? Rituals. A ritual is a recurring group activity designed to strengthen relationships. People organize them amongst friends (poker night) and family (thanksgiving dinner) because it gives us an opportunity to connect and share. And it feels good. The result of these get-togethers is a stronger bond, and companies have an opportunity to foster purposeful connections through rituals to counteract the relationship challenges of rapid growth.

Leadership can experience relationship decay as well. It isn’t as obvious because they are surrounded by a purposefully small group of executives and possibly lead a small team. All the same they lose touch with the who’s and the what’s of their organization. A popular example of trying to solve for this is when management consultants organize a day for the CEO to spend time in the field with customers. Just as peers need to stay connected to each other, so do leaders.

There are many types of rituals. Some led from the top, some employee driven. They can be company wide, or a get together for two. The only requirement is that they provide an opportunity to create or strengthen relationships. Each has its strengths and challenges.

  1. Explicit Large Group Rituals
    Team building. Twenty beans says you thought holiday party. Those are great, but there are many ways to strengthen relationships company wide. Lets think outside the punchbowl. Early in my career I worked for a global design agency that always threw an amazing summer picnic. This all-fun no-work offsite went a long way toward breaking down barriers between departments and creating new relationships that transcend tenure, but infrequent budget busters aren’t the only option. Adaptive Path/Capital One hosts Tea Time every Friday afternoon at 3:30. (Don’t be fooled, the tea cart is filled with beer and gin.) I happened to be there for one of these low-key end-of-the-week celebrations. This particular Friday the conference room was the scene of a fierce Rock Band tournament. They had all the peripheral instruments and it was awesome. I still think about the power this ridiculously fun and simple ritual had. Explicit large group rituals can even be asynchronous if you get creative. At Zappos they set a stage in the cafeteria with a bar stool and speakers for impromptu open mic lunches. If it is company sponsored, and reaches a lot of folks, the ritual falls into this quadrant.

+ A great idea that provides lots of opportunities for mingling
+ A dedicated, possibly significant, budget
+ The commitment to do it regularly

  1. Explicit Small Group Rituals
    Relationships can be built on a smaller scale, of course. A company sponsored sports team is a classic ritual in this category. New hire coffee with the CEO or manager is also a terrific way to connect those of different departments and rank. One FinTech startup here in San Francisco hosts regular lunch and learns where employees are encouraged to sign up to share a skill or interest. Cooking is most popular, but anyone can teach anything. These have proven a great way for folks to connect around topics that interest them. Look for opportunities to attract smallish groups of people who want to be there so they are open to new ideas and new people. Caution: requiring everyone to get together to learn the new time tracking system doesn’t count.

+ Commitment to the ritual, so the day-to-day doesn’t knock it off the list
+ A dedicated, modest budget
+ A way to communicate why and how this is happening

  1. Implicit Small Group Rituals
    Implicit rituals are those that happen without management instigation. These are the small group behaviors that bloom organically. The regular lunch. The afternoon coffee. Groups of two’s and three’s are a common size for these to start, but it doesn’t mean they can’t grow. I know of one startup that supports a small group that likes to play music by setting aside a small office in which they can rehearse. The challenge with implicit small group rituals is that they can become insular—folks usually associate with those they know. Management should encourage teams to expand their circle and invite others to join them for coffee, a grilled cheese, or to rock out. If leadership can identify these naturally occurring rituals, they should do everything they can to support them.

+ An ear to help find these otherwise invisible rituals
+ A willingness to support, and the restraint to not interrupt
+ A way to encourage others to participate

  1. Implicit Large Group Rituals
    These are rituals that naturally spring from the culture and reach many people. I love the story of a massive engineering firm back East who with instigation of one charismatic employee, started a daily jeopardy challenge that has brought everyone within earshot a quick opportunity to engage in a playful morning ritual. It began with just two cube mates, but has grown to a once a week trivia tournament held in the common space to accommodate everyone interested. It’s regular, light hearted, and fosters the kind of banter that naturally strengthens relationships. Implicit Large Group events are the queen of rituals: they are powerful because the creators feel ownership and enable the greatest cross-sampling of people. Bonus! These tend to be less expensive than the explicit large group, but just as effective.

+ Charismatic peer leader to initiate
+ An eye to see the opportunity
+ A willingness to support, and the restraint to not interrupt

What Every Growth Organization Needs

Relationship decay has been around since our primate ancestors began hunting in tribes, its the blistering growth startups experience that intensifies its symptoms and reveals its importance today. Growth organizations have to navigate too many challenges of which culture is just one. But just like data analytics in the 2000’s, managers, leaders, and executives need to turn serious attention toward rituals, and invest in strengthening the connective tissue of their organization as it grows. What in the past has may have been seen as simply perks and frivolous banter may turn out to be the secret to success.

This article was first published on LinkedIn. 

Scaling Culture 2: *When* It Goes Wrong

The second part in a series exploring the why, when, and how of managing company culture in a growth organization.

If you’ve ever had to work with another human, you know good relationships make for good work. These bonds are the conduits of culture, and while they don’t guarantee success, you can be sure it ain’t happening without them. Think of relationships as connective tissue: take this essential layer away and business would just be a pile of old laptops and financial documents.

No blue chip CEO will argue the point: the human side of business is critical to success. But how does this system of relationships change as startups emerge from their proverbial garages with dreams of long-term success? In post one, I proposed an answer: relationship decay. As co-workers increase in number our brains have to work harder to remember all the names, faces, and details. We are forced to choose who we know and how well.

When our brains have to work harder to remember all the names, faces, and details, we are forced to choose who we know and how well.

Why should anyone care about relationship decay? It is the reason startup cultures fail.

Without foresight and guidance, startup cultures weaken with growth. It’s hardly noticeable at first, but when it gains momentum employees will look up and no longer know all of the who’s and what’s that make the organization work. This is it: the moment culture is at greatest risk of unraveling. If we can see it coming maybe we can prepare for it.


In 1993, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized that as a group grows in size it requires more relationship strengthening activities or “social grooming” to operate effectively. In his research of primates he observed that the more individuals in a group, the more relationships existed. The more relationships there are, the more social grooming is needed. The more social grooming that’s needed, the more energy is required to maintain the groups structure. I’ll let him tell you.

Nonhuman primates maintain group cohesion through social grooming; among the Old World monkeys and apes, social grooming time is linearly related to group size.

It turns out for primates, social grooming is mainly achieved through, ta-dah, actual grooming. But I’m interrupting:

Maintaining stability of human-sized groups by grooming alone would make intolerable time demands. […] the evolution of large groups in the human lineage depended on developing a more efficient method for time-sharing the processes of social bonding.

(Spoiler alert: it’s language.)

In human conversations about 60% of time is spent gossiping about relationships and personal experiences. Language may accordingly have evolved to allow individuals to learn about the behavioral characteristics of other group members more rapidly than was feasible by direct observation alone.

Fascinating. But no matter how chatty we may be, even homo sapiens have an upper limit when it comes to group size. Dunbar concludes that groups can only grow so large—eventually what it takes to maintain the relationships outweighs the benefit of being together. When the number of individuals grows beyond 150, now known as Dunbar’s Number, the group will divide or create subgroups. (Even author Malcolm Gladwell name checked this phenomena in his book The Tipping Point.)

Neighborhoods within towns, teams within leagues, and even clans within online communities are all examples of organized groups that more or less adhere to Dunbar’s theory. So that’s our moment of risk, yes? I wasn’t so sure. I had seen organizational culture go through significant change well before that. So I did some more digging. It turns out, when it comes to work, the wheels on the culture wagon may get wobbly way before Dunbar might expect.

Internet Cryptography Pioneer Christopher Allen has tussled with Dunbar’s number in a few well-written articles. In them he argues that groups subdivide at significantly less than 150; probably around 50 he argues. Why? For groups that come together for reasons less than true survival, the amount of energy required to maintain relationships above fifty individuals is greater than the benefit received. While corporate America’s competitive environments can evoke “kill or be killed” attitudes, we aren’t fighting off large toothy predators like our hairier ancestors, even if sometimes it feels like it.

While corporate America’s competitive environments can evoke “kill or be killed” attitudes, we aren’t fighting off large toothy predators like our hairier ancestors, even if sometimes it feels like it.

Add the layers of management, departments, and new locations that happen around this time and, boom!, culture spaghetti all over the floor.

Does Allen prove an exact number for this phenomenon? No. But it doesn’t matter. When it comes to an organization subdividing and relationships weakening (or not happening in the first place), the story is the same nearly every time. Somewhere between 50 and 150, whether by talent acquisition or company acquisition, if strong relationships aren’t fostered, culture is more than likely to go off the rails. And if leaders aren’t looking, when they are finally forced to tangle with the symptoms of an unraveling culture it will be too late.

Maybe not too late, but the sooner founders and leaders realize that culture can and should be designed, the sooner they can begin thinking about how to strengthen relationships even as their organization grows beyond 50, 500, or 5000.

This post was first published on LinkedIn.